Cold Weather Biking: Essentials for riding as temps drop and light becomes scarce.

Cold Weather Biking: Essentials for riding as temps drop and light becomes scarce.

As I read this post by another Chicago Now blogger regarding indoor bike alternatives, I thought: "Yeah! I agree with all that stuff. Except for taking my cycling inside." I've been a fair weather biker for years, usually May thru October, but this year I'm going the distance. You can imagine that this got me spouting off at the mouth about my intentions, and a friend sent me this post from HuffPo which is full of solid ice biking tips. I plan to bike at least the 3 miles round trip to work each day, and as much elsewhere as possible. I consider myself a man of preparedness, and in that spirit I read a billion web pages and went on a shopping spree that left my AmEx smoking slightly at the corner.


What I learned from those pages is that gear is everything, and if it's not top priority it's a close second to raw determination. Also, for the record, I'm a label whore. I said it, and sorry I'm not sorry. The reason for this is that I spend a non-trivial amount of time looking into companies that I plan to patronize and that is exhausting so I keep it in a small cluster.

(FYI - no one pays me for saying any of this stuff. in fact some of it is ripped directly from reviews I have left on the sites after buying their gear with money I earn at a completely unrelated day job. )


It's a ground up operation getting dressed, so here's what I've been wearing on a typical commute in October/November:

Shoes - Chrome makes great kicks, these are working great for me as they have a hard sole and are more or less waterproof unless submerged or doused by riding through a mega-deep puddle (learned the hard way).  I got them on sale. I don't know if they're real suede, but if they are they're standing up to brutal conditions and still look like new.

Socks - Smartwool, FTW. If you don't have at least one pair of these, it's because you hate your feet. I have a webcrawler set up to look for them on sale, because they have a major flaw: they are insanely expensive. But for realsies, they're like fabric magic. I'm thinking of ordering lanolin soap just to wash these so they keep longer.

Base layer - Wool. Yes I'm serious, cover your body with a tight layer of wool. Itchy? Heavy? Where did you get your wool, from 1935? Modern wool base layers are as soft as silk and light as linen. Merino wool is nearly ubiquitous in stores that sell sweaters, and outdoor stores can barely keep the stuff stocked. 200 weight will keep you warm under a t-shirt when you start to see your breath, and 220 will keep you warm under a sweater when it's snowing. Sheep wear it all the damn time and they like it just fine. I got this one from Nau (see my review?) and I just wear it as a shirt cause it makes me look hot (I'm wearing it today, right now!)

Balaclava - Get with it. A scarf is going to shift around and need your attention. A beanie does absolutely nothing for your neck or face and this looks really stupid. I got one made of wool (yes, again, wool) because it's natural, sustainable, biodegradable, and cozy. My girlfriend says I should try to get a job as a lobbyist for the wool industry. This one I got from Icebreakers works pretty OK, unless I'm wearing glasses (my breath shoots up for dangerous insta-fogging effect). I'm still shopping for one that won't do this, but it fits under my helmet and keeps by neck and cheeks warm.

Helmet - I got a snowboarding helmet from a retail flagship of a big name in snowboarding. I won't bother mentioning too much about it other than I went that direction for a couple of reasons: 1) Bike helmets are made for speed, and safety is sort of an afterthought. You can tell by the way they completely neglect the back of the head. 2) Bike helmets are full of holes to let sweat dry. Those holes also collect precipitation and allow cold air in. 3) Snowboard helmets are made to work in harmony (my favorite) with goggles. It's a bit early in the season for that, but when temps are below 25F, they get crucial.

Gloves - My mom got these for me. She's a saint and can do no wrong, and in keeping with that these gloves are nearly perfect. They block wind and have the greatest insulation without making my hands sweaty. If they have room for one more feature it's waterproofing.  They block a lot of precip, but they  take in just enough that it's noticeable. I'm basically 100% sure they'll do better with snow than rain.

Lights - Crucial! Keep in mind that for city riding, these lights are not for you. The street lights keep your path illuminated.  Instead, nearly every light sold at a bike shop or on a bike website has a flash feature. With the sun dropping before office folks even get to power down their monitors for the day, these lights are absolutely a safety must. They're obnoxious, which makes sure that motorists will surely notice them, which means they'll notice you and hopefully drive appropriately.  My bike is packed with this guy (super bright), this guy (super cute) and this guy (versatile tail light).


That's the basics of my bike gear for cold weather. Check back and I'll go over some of my wind and rain beating outerwear, as well as what I look for in a back pack and luggage racks/bags.


Bike smart. Bike safe. Bike all winter long.


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  • Great article - thanks for the shoutout!

    You've certainly got it all covered - literally and figuratively. As the saying goes "there's no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing." Wool is the best material for insulating and wicking away moisture. Sheep do swear by it.

    As for typical bike helmets, good point about ventilation - that's a must considering you must evaporate sweat in order to cool yourself down. Trapping moisture is not optimal. When it comes to protection, bike helmets aren't just built for speed. The protruding rear will protect your neck and skull should you fall backward and the slick material will make sure you slide along the payment rather than catching it and snapping your neck. Beware of helmets with exposed foam - foam will stop your slide.

    There are new bike helmets out there designed for urban riders that look more like a batter's helmet. Nutcase is a hot new brand I've seen at a number of shops.

    You forgot the importance of tires! Depending on the size tire you ride, there are not only "all-season" tires, but knobbier tires and even studded tires. Stop in to a local shop like On The Route or Boulevard Bikes and check them out.

    Oh yeah, I almost forgot fenders! Protect your bike clothes (and your bike frame) by installing a pair of plastic fenders. They don't add that much weight and they will get you to work dryer.

    You are a braver man than I - be safe out there!

  • In reply to Brent Cohrs:

    Thanks for reading.
    Great points!

    I see another post in my future about outfitting my bike with accessories to combat the weather :)

  • Great stuff.

    Here are a few more.

  • In reply to David Wallach:

    Thanks for reading, David!!

    I read your post right after I published this, otherwise I would have linked you as well. You have some great pics of winter riders!

  • Let's get our there and do it!!! Good to have more CN bloggers who ride!

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    Love this, thanks for the Chrome shout out!! And yes, your shoes are really suede. ;)

  • LIghts not for being seen and not for seeing? Depends where you ride. In the city with the bright yellow sodium vapor lights, maybe not. Cross the line into Evanston, though and you definitely need a light that's going to illuminate your path. Even in the city, there are parts of the Lakefront path that I want a bright light for at night.

  • All that said, I'm getting too old for this winter @#$%. Spinning class will keep me in shape until March.

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